The new capital

tower blackfriarsI spent most of last weekend walking and cycling around central London. A chance to get reacquainted. Strolling along the Embankment was a joy, but only as long as I didn’t let my eyes linger on the anonymous towers that have sprung up east and west. Edwin Heathcote, the FT’s architecture critic, seems to feel much the same way:

London’s departing mayor Boris Johnson came to office in 2008 on a promise not to let London turn into “Dubai on Thames”, in contrast to his predecessor Ken Livingstone, who had been pro-development and pro-tower. Yet Johnson’s record has been precisely the opposite of his sloganeering, an execrable legacy of ill-planned developments and poorly-designed towers scattered incoherently across the city. The impression is of a capital in thrall to capital, property as asset class — what the former City planner Peter Rees termed “safe-deposit boxes in the sky”…  London continues to attract people from all over the world — even if the young, the creative and the unsure are increasingly pushed to the margins. There was never a perfect moment. Yet walking through its fast-changing streets there is a sense that the new is inevitably bigger than the old; glassier, shinier, but rarely better. “The chief function of the city,” wrote the urban historian Lewis Mumford in 1961, “is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity.” The chief function of London, today, it would seem, is to convert space into money. Is that ambition enough?

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